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Ben Wheatley’s Crossover Moment: How a British Genre Director Became an International Auteur With ‘Sightseers’

In this excerpt from a new book on the filmmaker, Adam Nayman explains how Wheatley's dark comedy illustrated his mastery of the form.

sightseers

“Sightseers”

The following is excerpted from a chapter in film critic Adam Nayman’s new book “Ben Wheatley: Confusion and Carnage,” which is now available.

“Nobody fucks with you like [Ben] Wheatley,” wrote Cinema Scope’s Robert Koehler in a dispatch filed from Cannes in 2012, the year that “Sightseers” premiered in the Director’s Fortnight and shifted the critical perception of its director to a global figure. If Cannes is historically the proving ground for auteur directors, then the presence of “Sightseers” on the Croisette suggested that Wheatley was emerging from his niche as a UK genre specialist. For Koehler, “Sightseers” was one of the titles at Cannes that seemed “eager to play outside boundaries within which most of the other films were all too willing to contain themselves.”

Trying to break away from the everyday—or, put another way, the search for transcendence—is the secret theme of “Sightseers,” a film that, as Koehler says, actively fucks with its audience, both in terms of identification, which it encourages and then punishes in a way very different from “Down Terrace” and “Kill List,” and also its co-mingling of satirical humor and horrendous violence. If “Kill List” plays out as a grim reversal of “Down Terrace”—a tragedy about a father who brutally murders his son—“Sightseers” could be a sequel, or maybe a sideways remake of the first film: a fable about two damaged souls who find each other, leaving a trail of corpses in their wake.

The killer couples in Wheatley’s first two films may be analogues for the director and Amy Jump, whose creative partnership (and family business) has been in place since the early days of MrandMrsWheatley.com. “Sightseers,” though, is a film with two sets of his-and-hers creators: not only Wheatley and Jump (officially credited with providing “additional material” for the script), but also Steve Oram and Alice Lowe, who originally invented and developed the characters of Chris and Tina, whose journey by caravan through Derbyshire gives the story its road-movie shape.

“Sightseers” began as a series of improvisations hatched by Lowe and Oram at a live sketch show hosted at Ealing Studios in West London, an epicenter of British comedy dating back to a sublime series of black-and-white farces produced in-house after World War II. Oram and Lowe had both grown up in the Midlands, had very similar memories of taking long, protracted family holidays in that region, and simultaneously hit upon the idea of refracting that boredom through a sociopathic lens. “We just found it funny them talking about mundane things and then disposing of body parts in the same breath,” explained Oram before the film’s release. “The idea to have them going on holiday and knocking people off whilst visiting tram museums was something that made us laugh.”

The two comedians worked to create a short teaser film starring themselves as Chris and Tina. Directed by Paul King, a veteran of The Mighty Boosh, the original “Sightseers” short was rejected by every UK broadcaster for being “too dark”; but its unpleasantness was not an impediment for Edgar Wright. Rather, the director of “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz” was impressed by the short’s bleak humor, and got involved in the development process, including getting the material to Wheatley and Rook Films.

“He thought ‘oh this could make a movie,’ ” said Wheatley in a 2013 interview with Complex. “A long time passed, and then I made ‘Down Terrace,’ and Big Talk, the production company who made ‘Shaun of the Dead,’ saw it and thought that we would be a fit for this script.”

As the first of Wheatley’s films to come from another source, “Sightseers” complicates the question of authorship, but the director’s stylistic stamp is evident from the opening scenes, which are very close in look and feel to Down Terrace. Tina lives in a tiny flat with her mother Carol (Eileen Davies), whose near-catatonic posture sitting in a living room armchair is reminiscent of Bob Hill as Bill. However, Carol’s passive-aggressive style of emotional violence is closer to Maggie’s; when her daughter tries to get her attention, Carol strenuously ignores her. The first word spoken in the film is “Mum,” which Tina repeats over and over until it becomes a kind of invocation, as well as a double-entendre on the idea of giving somebody the silent treatment (e.g.“Mum’s the word”).

Low self-esteem girl Tina is quite obviously looking for approval and also absolution as she heads out with her new boyfriend Chris, who has proposed a road trip through the Midlands. But Carol won’t give her either, choosing instead to heap guilt upon her daughter. “Down Terrace”’s metaphorical (and masculine) noose gets replaced by the literal leash that Tina carries around with her at all times, a memento of her dear departed dog Poppy, whose death—as we will learn later on in an outrageously choreographed flashback—weighs heavily on her conscience.

The leash is also a symbol of how tightly she’s bound to her mother. As the man who might finally cut these apron strings, Chris is a figure of resentment for Carol, who tells him flatly, “I don’t like you” as he and Tina are pulling out of the driveway. Her farewell to her daughter is even harsher: invoking Poppy,

who met her fate at the wrong end of some carelessly placed knitting needles, she calls Tina a “murderer.” This accusation is the film’s first great, black joke, because Carol is absolutely right. For one thing, Chris is not to be trusted, and for another, Tina is a murderer—or rather, she’s about to become one, several times over. In a film where the main characters both display powers of precognition and projection in dream sequences Carol’s outlandish accusations are prophetic.

Not that this makes her sympathetic. As played by Davies, she’s an oppressive presence to be escaped from—for Tina and the audience both. “Down Terrace” ended with Karl and Valda makinga break for it by killing Bill and Maggie; Tina just wants a little space, or, more accurately, to share that space with somebody who isn’t her mother. The song on the soundtrack as Chris and Tina drive away from Carol’s house is instructive: Soft Cell’s 1981 cover of Gloria Jones’ 1964 hit “Tainted Love.” “I’ve got to run away/I’ve got to get away” drones vocalist Mark Almond in the verses, neatly articulating Tina’s yen for adventure while the repetition of the song’s title in the chorus provides an anxious counterpoint.

The tainted love here is multi-directional: it manifests not only between Chris and Tina, whose relationship will grow increasingly toxic, but also between Tina and her mother. Wheatley keeps cutting back to Carol throughout the sequence, and as “Sightseers” goes on, it uses her as a kind of structuring absence. Whenever Tina feels like things are going badly, she has only to think of her mother and the desire to run back home fades away. The claustrophobia of these opening scenes lingers; Adam Loewenstein writes that “Wheatley… maintains the threat represented by Tina’s home throughout the film by alternating wide-open, often sublime exteriors with the constrained interiors of places like a tramway car, a subterranean cavern, a noisy restaurant, and the caravan itself.”

“Sightseers” is very much Tina’s story, even if the bulk of the action and dialogue is split between her and Chris. The film works as a gender-flipped companion to “Down Terrace,” focusing on a stifled female adult teenager who, like Karl, harbors murderous resentment towards her parent of the same gender, to some extent because she recognizes herself in the older woman’s lonely fate.

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